Top Italian Wine Alternatives
If you love Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, you’ll adore their junior partners.
These wines—Langhe Nebbiolo, Nebbiolo d’Alba, Rosso di Montalcino and Rosso di Montepulciano—utilize the same grape varieties as their more famous siblings, but are made to be enjoyed young for their easy-drinking finesse.
Best of all, because they cost a fraction of the more celebrated wines, many of these junior partners offer fantastic quality without breaking the bank, making them ideal for life’s less formal occasions.
—Kerin O'Keefe, Photos by Meg Baggott
Langhe Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo d’Alba deliver fresh, approachable expressions of Nebbiolo, which is the only grape allowed in Barolo and Barbaresco, two of Italy’s most age-worthy wines.
Top producers often make Langhe Nebbiolo from their young Barolo and Barbaresco vines, but some employ vines planted in soils that yield elegant wines without the complexity and tannic strength required to produce Piedmont’s dynamic duo.
Other winemakers choose to reclassify their aging Barolo and Barbaresco as Langhe Nebbiolo if they feel certain lots of wine don’t have the staying power needed for their top wines.
“We make our Langhe Nebbiolo from young vines and age it for six months in steel,” says Giovanna Rizzolio of Cascina delle Rose. “It shows Nebbiolo’s bright, charming side.”
On the other hand, Nebbiolo d’Alba is made from vines situated outside of the Barolo and Barbaresco growing areas, and must be made entirely of Nebbiolo (Langhe Nebbiolo must contain at least 85 percent, although most producers insist they use only Nebbiolo).
The best examples of both denominations deliver drinkable wines that boast crunchy red-berry flavors, vibrant acidity and supple tannins.
Tino Colla, co-owner of Poderi Colla and younger brother to Beppe Colla, one of Barolo’s top winemakers, eschews Langhe Nebbiolo in favor of Nebbiolo d’Alba.
“Nebbiolo d’Alba isn’t a declassification of another wine, namely Barolo and Barbaresco, but it is instead a wine in its own right,” says Colla. “A quintessential Nebbiolo d’Alba is all about balance and enjoyment, displaying floral and delicate red fruit sensations alongside integrated tannins and fresh acidity.”
Piedmont’s Nebbiolos At A Glance
• Minimum 85% Nebbiolo
• Grapes grown in vineyards registered to produce Barolo, Barbaresco and Nebbiolo d’Alba
• No aging requirements; some producers age the wines in steel to maintain freshness, while others age in wood to add structure or tame tannins
• 100% Nebbiolo
• Grapes grown in delimited vineyards outside Barolo and Barbaresco
• Must be aged for at least 12 months before release; Nebbiolo d’Alba Superiore must be aged 18 months, including six in wood
92 Cascina delle Rose 2013 Nebbiolo (Langhe). Vibrant and delicious, this shows Nebbiolo’s elegant, youthful side. It weaves together rose, violet, perfumed berry, bright cherry, crushed raspberry and sweet baking spices alongside supple tannins and fresh acidity. Enjoy it soon to capture the crunchy berry flavors. Multiple U.S. importers.
abv: 14% Price: $30
90 Ascheri 2012 San Giacomo (Nebbiolo d’Alba). Violet, underbrush, woodland berries and baking spice aromas lead the nose of this lovely, youthful Nebbiolo. The lively palate delivers crunchy red cherry and wild strawberry, accented with notes of white pepper and citrus alongside supple tannins and brisk acidity. Editors’ Choice. Martignetti.
abv: 14% Price: $25
90 Damilano 2012 Marghe Nebbiolo (Langhe). This delicious and structured Nebbiolo delivers the grape’s classic sensations of dark cherry, clove, cinnamon-spice and a hint of orange peel. Vibrant, with fresh acidity balanced by silky smooth tannins, it’s ready to be enjoyed now. Vias Imports.
abv: 14% Price: $23
90 Nada Fiorenzo 2011 Nebbiolo (Langhe). Intense aromas of blue flower, red berry and licorice lead the nose on this fragrant, full-bodied Nebbiolo. Menthol, licorice, cake spices and a blast of orange zest complement the juicy, red cherry and black raspberry flavors. Premium Brands.
abv: 14.5% Price: $22
89 Bersano 2012 Paisano (Nebbiolo d’Alba). Crushed blue flower, succulent black cherry, wild raspberry and baking spices all jump from the glass of this savory wine. The juicy fruit palate is balanced by soft, round tannins, and it closes on a lively mineral note. Drink through 2015. Vin Divino.
abv: 13.5% Price: $17
89 Poderi Colla 2012 Nebbiolo d’Alba. This youthful, medium-bodied wine opens with pretty aromas of violet, rose petal, orange zest and woodland berries that carry over to the palate alongside firm, rounded tannins. Juicy, fresh and enjoyable, it will offer easy-drinking pleasure through 2016. Montcalm Wine Importers.
abv: 13.5% Price: $26
Just like Brunello di Montalcino, Rosso di Montalcino must be made exclusively from Sangiovese. Often referred to as “Baby Brunello,” Rosso has a range of styles, from lithe and easygoing with wild cherry flavors and brisk acidity, to more structured versions boasting dark cherry and spice sensations as well as modest aging potential.
Montalcino producers can make their second wine by declassifying grapes in their Brunello vineyards to Rosso, or they can declassify lots of Brunello aging in the cellars by releasing it after just a year or two.
Rather than repackaging less-than-ideal Brunello lots, many producers are treating Rosso as a distinct wine starting in the vineyards.
Today, a growing number of Montalcino’s producers craft Rosso from their young Brunello vines, or from dedicated Rosso vineyards situated in areas that yield more elegant and accessible wines.
“We have vineyards of various ages planted exclusively to our clonal selection of Sangiovese,” says Castello Banfi’s Cristina Mariani-May. “Rosso is made from newer vines in their first five to six years of production, supplemented by a selection of declassified Brunello grapes, depending on the vintage.”
Other producers who make Rossos from specific vineyard selections include Biondi Santi, Altesino and Fuligni. The best are vibrant and easy-drinking, with juicy red berry flavors.
As Mariani-May says, Rosso di Montalcino pairs well with comfort foods like pizza, pasta alla Bolognese, or even grilled steak.
Maria Flora Fuligni, owner of the Fuligni estate, prefers to drink Rosso in warmer weather. “Thanks to its freshness and elegance, Rosso is enjoyable even in the hot summer months.”
Rosso di Montalcino At A Glance
• 100% Sangiovese
• Grapes from young Brunello vines or vineyards registered for Rosso production, or from declassified lots of Brunello
• Can be sold after the first September following the harvest; most producers age the wines in wood for nine months to one year
92 Fuligni 2012 Ginestreto (Rosso di Montalcino). Enticing aromas of violet, rose, pressed powder and perfumed berries waft from the glass of this elegant wine. The juicy palate weaves together red cherry, strawberry, clove and cinnamon, with fresh acidity and silky smooth tannins. Balanced and enjoyable, this will make fine drinking over the next two or three years. Empson USA.
abv: 14% Price: $42
92 Gianni Brunelli 2012 Rosso di Montalcino. This delicious Rosso opens with an intense fragrance of perfumed berries, crushed blue flower, hints of Mediterranean herbs and a whiff of new leather. The ripe palate brings together juicy wild cherry layered with notes of baking spices alongside supple tannins and just enough freshness. Enjoy over the next few years. de Grazia Imports.
abv: 14.5% Price: $27
92 Le Chiuse 2012 Rosso di Montalcino. Fragrant, fresh and floral, this textbook Rosso di Montalcino offers lovely aromas of wild berries, violets, pressed powder and cake spices. The delicious palate doles out juicy red cherry and crushed raspberry accented with notes of cinnamon, all wrapped up in an elegant, silky-smooth texture. Enjoy over the next few years. Editor’s Choice. Frederick Wildman & Sons.
abv: 14% Price: $21
90 Caparzo 2012 Rosso di Montalcino. This pretty Rosso opens with an intense floral fragrance of crushed blue flower and perfumed red berries. The fresh, savory palate displays dark cherry, wild raspberry, baking spices, tilled earth and a hint of citrus alongside enveloping, velvety tannins. Enjoy through 2016. Vineyard Brands.
abv: 14% Price: $28
90 Castello Banfi 2012 Poggio alle Mura (Rosso di Montalcino). Round and savory, this -medium-bodied Rosso opens with aromas that recall underbrush, tobacco leaf and cooking spices. The dense palate doles out rich black fruit accented with cinnamon, clove and licorice alongside supple tannins. It’s made to be enjoyed young, so drink it now through 2015. Banfi Vintners.
abv: 14% Price: $28
Made around the stunning Tuscan hilltop town of Montepulciano, Rosso di Montepulciano is the younger sibling of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
Once considered Tuscany’s leading wine and lauded in Francesco Redi’s Bacco in Toscana published in the 17th century, structured Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is enjoying a renaissance. That resurgence has helped introduce consumers to the more immediately approachable Rosso.
Rosso is made from the same grapes as Vino Nobile—predominantly Sangiovese. Although any red grape grown in the denomination can make up the balance, many producers rely on the local grapes Mammolo and Canaiolo instead of Merlot.
A prototypical Rosso di Montepulciano offers a pretty fragrance of violets alongside succulent cherry and plum flavors. Thanks to its savory flavors, silky tannins and brisk acidity, it’s a quintessential food companion.
“Thanks to its price-quality ratio, Rosso di Montepulciano is a great quality wine for everyday,” says Caterina Dei, who runs her family’s Dei estate.
Dei makes her second wine from younger vines and with vineyards planted in soil that has more sand and less clay and yields more graceful wines. Producers can also choose to declassify their aging Vino Nobile to Rosso.
Rosso di Montepulciano At A Glance
• Minimum 70% Sangiovese (known locally as Prugnolo Gentile)
• Grapes from the same vineyards as Vino Nobile or from dedicated Rosso vineyards, or from declassified lots of Vino Nobile
• Can be sold starting the first March after the harvest year; producers often age the wines for three to six months in neutral barrels
90 Dei 2012 Rosso di Montepulciano. Ripe black plum, forest floor, mint and spice notes lead the nose on this medium-bodied red. The succulent, straightforward palate doles out fleshy black cherry and crushed raspberry, accented with black pepper and clove alongside round tannins. Drink now through 2015. Editors’ Choice. de Grazia Imports.
abv: 13% Price: $18
90 Poggio alla Sala 2013 Rosso di Montepulciano. This opens with aromas of blue flower, black cherry, raspberry, black pepper, clove and tilled earth. The rich, juicy fruit flavors accompany supple tannins and fresh acidity. Balanced and savory; enjoy through 2015. Editors’ Choice. Total Wine & More.
abv: 13.5% Price: $16
89 Tenuta Il Faggeto 2012 Lupaio (Rosso di Montepulciano). Made from Prugnolo Gentile and Canaiolo, this easygoing, delicious wine delivers juicy flavors of wild cherry, crushed raspberry, cinnamon and vanilla. It’s fresh, with a moderately tannic structure. Drink now–2016. Best Buy. TMT USA.
abv: 13.5% Price: $13
89 Avignonesi 2012 Rosso di Montepulciano. Fans of Vino Nobile will adore this pretty and accessible Rosso. It opens with a delicate floral fragrance of violet, perfumed berries and baking spices. The refined palate delivers juicy wild cherry and raspberry, lightly accented with cinnamon notes alongside supple tannins and fresh acidity. A hint of licorice marks the close. Tabaccaia Imports.
abv: 13% Price: $19
89 Canneto 2012 Rosso di Montepulciano. This full-bodied wine opens with pretty aromas of crushed blue flower, spice and perfumed berry. The dense, one-dimensional palate doles out juicy black cherry, cinnamon-spice and licorice. There’s not much complexity but it is delicious. Drink through 2015. Selected Estates of Europe Ltd.
abv: 13% Price: $16
89 Il Conventino 2013 Rosso di Montepulciano. Made from organically farmed grapes, this savory wine opens with aromas of crushed violet, black cherry, wild rasberry, plum, white pepper and baking spices. The succulent fruit palate is supported by chewy tannins and fresh acidity. A licorice note marks the finish. Vignaioli Selection.
abv: 14% Price: $20
- 2Langhe Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo d’Alba
- 3Langhe Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo d
- 4Rosso di Montalcino
- 5Rosso di Montalcino at a Glance + Top Performers
- 6Rosso di Montepulciano
- 7Rosso di Montepulciano At A Glance + Top Performers